Sexonomics: Why Attractive People Are More Successful
Once upon a time, long, long ago, a man I worked for said to me, “You’re beautiful.” Then he quickly added, as if he regretted paying me such an expansive compliment, “in your category.”
Had I read the new crop of scholarly books on beauty, I would have considered legal action. Or I would have contemplated a makeover. Either I had been a victim of “lookism”—a form of discrimination as toxic as racism, sexism, or classism—or I needed to spend more time applying mascara.
It says much about the 21st century that these books—aka “beauty studies”—regard beauty less as a noble, an aspirational, or even a sentimental ideal than as either an injustice that can be handled only by the law or something that women must slyly turn to their own advantage. After the waves of 20th-century feminism, we seem to have circled back to the notion that beauty hurts. But what is new about these books is their reliance on social-science methods to expand that point of view: Now beauty is often viewed through economics, particularly, to calculate its harm to anyone—not just women—who is not a perfect 10.
In the law corner is Daniel S. Hamermesh’s Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, which calls people who aren’t beautiful “The Ugly” or “Looks-Challenged” and argues that they merit affirmative action. In the exploit-the-marketplace corner is Catherine Hakim’sErotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom, which defines “erotic capital” as a mysterious force that women possess and men want and contends that women should manipulate it to compensate for being less well compensated than men are for their looks.
To advance their arguments and challenge common wisdom, the books’ main weapon is number-crunching. Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, calls his field “pulchronomics.” His method involves asking large groups of people the same questions and averaging their answers, with unsurprisingly average results. In one study Hamermesh cites, people invited to rate the beauty of subjects judge the majority, well, average looking. In another, older people are viewed as less beautiful than younger ones. Hakim, a sociologist and senior research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, in London, calls her field “sexonomics.” She summarizes others’ theories and sometimes draws her own conclusions, which can be trenchant though predictable, as when she rails against the academy for slavish politically correct attitudes about gender and its political correctness in general. But Hakim can also be just plain off-the-wall, as in her one-liner that Canadian women care less about their appearance than American women do.